Jay Busbee is a novelist and journalist living in Atlanta. Click the links below and at right for more information on his novels, articles, and comics.

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The Not-So-Raucous Caucus

Sept. 2, 1988


            First of all, let’s get one thing absolutely straight. The 1988 Democratic National Convention was, to most of America, about as interesting as a televised PTA meeting. But to be a part of the whole fiasco—as a quote-reporter-unquote—was something else entirely.

            Mingling with famous folk, fellow journalists, and the nuts that accompany any such gathering was indeed an experience. It at least beat hanging around the house or actually working.


Transients on the Road to Eden

            The convention was held from July 18-21 in the hellish heat of Atlanta, Georgia. The air surrounding the city for weeks prior to the convention was tense, to say the least. It was the same feeling that sweeps your entire family when Mom tells you Company is coming, and you’d damn well better clean up and not embarrass yourself.

            The entire city seemed bent on seeing how far it could distance itself from its region. “Alabama? Mississippi? Who’re they? No pickups or good ol’ boys around here.” The ruling elite saw this as their chance to shove Atlanta headlong into the realm of international cities—New York, L.A., Paris, et. al. To us native folk, the whole setup reeked of brownnosing and a nauseating “me-too” mentality as Atlanta tried to prove it had advanced past the days of Scarlett O’Hara.

            Some people outside of Atlanta weren’t putting up with the new sheen that coated the city. An article in Newsweek that appeared a couple of weeks before the convention called Atlanta a “Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time City.” Accurate, if blunt. Similar editorial grenades from other journalists were lobbed at the Big Peach.

            Rather than pulling out a verbal shotgun and blastin’ them uppity Yanks in the tail, though, Atlanta wisely ignored the bad press and set to showing just how good of a show it could put on.

            Of course, there was plenty of dust that had to be swept under the city rug. Homeless around the Omni International and World Congress Center, sites for the convention itself and headquarters for the overzealous press, had to be dealt with.

            City councilmen offered the transients brand-new Amana refrigerator bozes if they’d relocate a couple of blocks away for a week or so. Interstate 85 from the airport to the convention center, with all its banners and self-congratulatory messages, looked like the road to Eden.

            To be fair, Atlanta turned a logistical nightmare into a smooth, (mostly) well-organized, made-for-prime-time miniseries, complete with theme music and 35,000 delegates, journalists, and protesters.


Jesse and the Duke

            For their part, the Democrats were determined to make this convention run smoother than, say, Chicago 1968. The last possible shred of suspense was effectively squashed when Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis reached their understanding. “You remember me come November,” Jesse in essence said to the Duke, “and I won’t bring the roof down on your head in Atlanta.”

            Sizing up the individuals who appeared at this year’s convention is like sizing up the individuals at an average day at Disney World. Democrats are folks of every shape, size and income level, from Billy Bob and his six-pack crowd in the Mississippi delegation to the top of the Hollywood star echelon.

            This diversity, often running to disunity, is perhaps the main reason why the Democrats have gotten the tar whipped out of them in the past two presidential elections. The Republicans have fought like hell to keep their man in office, and will naturally do so again; however, this time, the Democrats decided to put aside most of their petty bitching and get down to business.

            Jackson, potentially the most divisive element in the entire party, was, for the most part, the most stable and party-oriented of all the candidates. He fairly boiled over with partisan speechmaking. Anointed nominee Mike Dukakis was a bit more smug, acting as though he knew all along that the upstart reverend would come around sooner or later.

            That’s the neatest aspect about political conventions—they reveal, for all the world to see (and, generally, ignore) just how two-faced most of these boys running for office really are. In the spring, they’re putting each other’s parentage in doubt; come convention time, they’re rallying around the victor like loyal family members.

            Whatever their lineage or loyalties, however, the Dems gathered here in Atlanta, heartened by the Democratic Congressional trump in 1986, to unify under a single candidate, a single platform, and a singular desire to see anyone remotely connected with the Reagan administration hitting the bricks and writing memoirs come January.

            The Reagan era’s shortcomings gave the Democrats plenty of targets to fire at during their individual speeches in Atlanta. And fire they did—particularly at George Bush, who was “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” according to keynote speaker Ann Richards. Senator Edward Kennedy asked, “Where was George?”—a slogan that became one of the many rallying cries in Atlanta.


Roamin’ the Protest Zone

            For my part, the convention began with a casual stop by my newspaper office. After picking up an extra pass, I gathered camera and headed downtown. After parking seven blocks from the Omni, I was forced to run the gauntlet of hundreds of street merchants selling everything imaginable with the Democratic logo on it. My personal favorite was a bumper sticker a young man showed me with the furtive air of a stolen watch salesman. It said, of course, “Lick Bush in ’88.”

            About a block away from the convention site was the designated protest zone. The reasoning on the part of both the protestors and the City of Atlanta seemed rather skewed on this point. They agreed on specific times and lengths of time for each group to say its piece. That’s kind of like if a couple of hostile countries sat down together one afternoon, traded strategies and times of attack, and then went ahead and started the war with each other anyway.

            The end result was a mostly tame affair. Protestors came, pled their individual impassioned cases, and left the stage for the next bunch. The folks who had the misfortune to be scheduled on the days that groups like pro-Palestinians or the KKK were played the role of opening acts for the main events. Local movers and shakers were heard to be planning their evening schedules around some of the more interesting protests.

            However, a few groups did manage to rattle the city’s cage a bit. Anti-abortionists actually brought human fetuses to the protest grounds. The KKK and some of Atlanta’s skinheads teamed up against some black protesters the day before the convention began. Even in 1988, racism is alive and well and living in your hometown.

            Why else but in the name of hate would two such diverse groups join together? These guys weren’t adhering to the “no physical contact, we have an image to uphold here” rule either. No, all three gangs went at each other like cats in a sack, dragging Atlanta’s finest in with them. But no major injuries resulted, and the groups lost their prime protest time slots to more reserved parties.

            When I got to the protest grounds, some folks waving Bob Marley flags “No More Businessmen’s Conventions” banners were shouting something incoherent. It’s tough to read an entire manifesto for the future of the world in just 15 minutes.


Talking with Actual Celebrities

            After being frisked like a convicted criminal and run through a gauntlet of anti-terrorist security devices, I made my way inside the Omni itself. Usually packed with rabid overweight booze hounds for Hawks basketball games or suburban rebels with curfews for various concerts, the Omni now played host to a plethora of suited, bespectacled, Pulitzer-seeking journalists, each intent on finding that special angle on the 1988 Democratic platform. I adjusted my baseball cap and went off in search of celebrities to interview.

            I didn’t have far to go. Naturally, every Democrat worth his salt shows up to put in his two cents at these four-day ideologyfests. Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Paul Simon (the one with the bow tie), and Gary Hart were all in attendance.

            Before I’d even had time to grab a watery, overpriced drink, I ran into the esteemed Senator Al Gore Jr. His wife Tipper was nowhere to be seen.

            Looking like the smooth political charmer that he is, Gore was entertaining a host of young female reporters. When the literary lovelies moved on, I strolled casually over to speak with Al.

            “Senator Gore! Jay Busbee, The Flat Hat. Good to see you here, sir.”

            “Hmmm?” Gore replied, evidently unimpressed by my journalistic credentials. I pressed on.

            “I caught your debate in Williamsburg a few months ago. Enjoyed it a great deal.” Actually, I enjoyed throwing popcorn at the TV whenever one of the Democrats made some boneheaded comment at the famous Phi Beta Kappa Hall debate, but that was about all. Still, the guy will be President someday.

            “Yes…thank you,” he returned, which meant he probably didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Anyway, Gore smiled, nodded, and moved on to capture the heart of some young television reporter with his boy-next-door smile.

            Connie Chung, that “lusty-eyed hot mama of the news hour,” according to Opus in Bloom County, presented a more challenging situation. Now, there’s something incestuous about journalists interviewing other journalists, but hey—I had no other reason to be there, and Connie’s as good a target as anybody. Better her than somebody like, say, Sam Donaldson.

            The lovely and talented Chung was conducting some sort of (I hoped) informal interview with someone I didn’t recognize. Connie had that look that they teach you in insightful journalists’ school—she appeared deeply interested in what the other woman was saying, but you knew she was bored out of her mind and would rather have been cornering Jesse for an exclusive. At any rate, I only had time to tell her how lovely and talented I thought she was.

            “You look even better in real life, Miss Chung,” I offered.

            She simply glared at me, probably figuring I got my press pass from Tiger Beat or something. Connie brushed me off with a terse “Yes…thank you.” Hadn’t I heard that one somewhere before? It became the brush-off of the evening.

            The California delegation was the place to hit to find the politically-minded (yeah, right) members of the Hollywood set. Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Mike Farrell (B.J. of “M*A*S*H”), Morgan Fairchild and many others were on hand to preach and be seen. Though it reeked of setup, I valiantly plunged into the fray to see who I could round up for a quick word.

            Miss Fairchild had already been cornered by another member of the press corps. Good thing, too—with all that makeup, she intimidated the hell out of me. I turned to search the crowd, and in one of those happy instances of fate, happened to lock eyes with “Family Ties” star Justine Bateman. With her long brunette hair and low-cut dress, she looked absolutely resplendent and ridiculously out-of-place in this convention hall.

            “Miss Bateman, glad you could make it,” I said, wondering if she would deign to speak to a member of the always-overzealous press.

            “Oh, I’m so glad to be here. Atlanta’s wonderful,” she replied. We struck up a brief conversation about various nightclubs in Atlanta. Unfortunately, however, she was needed for some delegation duties; thus, my incisive interview stopped far short of biting questions or terse analysis. Not that the conversation was headed in that direction anyway.


Watching All the Nothing

            The floor of the hall during the convention resembles nothing so much as a celebration on the field after the Super Bowl. Lights are flashing, reporters are nosing, delegates are screaming and the failed candidates are posing. There are plenty of “experts” expounding on various issues of reporters to dutifully note.

            But this time, there was a palpable aura of…blandness is the right word, I suppose. The conventioneers were shouting and carrying on, but they were hurling their insults at anything remotely elephantine rather than at each other. There were no serious floor battles, no major walkouts, no snacks between meals—the whole scene was downright Republican in its stoicism.

            But then that’s what the Democrats were shooting for this time around—a calm, collected convention. They certainly achieved it—and all of Atlanta breathed a sigh of relief. Journalists have been screaming left and right about how boring and staid the whole convention was, and most of them are on target. I tried my hardest, but I could only turn up one bit of controversy that might possibly have had any significance to the convention at large.

            It was late in the evening’s proceedings. Jesse had just finished his “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war” speech, sending the whole arena into fits of partisan ecstasy. Most of the conventioneers were headed back to their hotels, where their covers were turned down and a mint rested on their pillows. I had an unmade bed and maybe half a donut in the kitchen awaiting me.

            Just outside the gates, however, there were several extremely agitated conventioneers trying to get in. I saw a rather prominent senator arguing fruitlessly with a security guard. I walked over in an attempt to find out just what this apparently critical problem was.

            “Who do you work for?” he asked after noticing my press pass.

            “Rolling Stone.” Why not? He’ll never see me again.

            “They aren’t letting me in!” he fumed. “They say the hall is too full and I should have been on time.” He acted as if this were some sort of an unreasonable request.

            The senator (who, by the way, was locked out because the Omni had reached its maximum capacity) went on to denounce the Omni, Atlanta, and Georgia in general. I thanked him for his time and walked off laughing.

            That was the beauty of this convention—seeing so many people get worked up over what, in the end, amounted to so little. We knew who the candidates would be, we knew the basic platform, we knew exactly how the whole convention would go.

            And I had a fantastic time watching all the nothing from the inside. Catch you in 1992.


All contents copyright © 2005 James Busbee. All Rights Reserved.


-Tom Cruise Breaks Out His 'A' Games, ESPN.com, July 2005

-Dream Another Dream (Hoop Dreams DVD review), Chicago Sports Review July 2005

-Rollin' On The River (Feature on the late, lamented Chattahoochee Raft Race in Atlanta), Atlanta, June 2005

-Fuzzy Yellow Bloodlust (column on my tennis temper), Atlanta, June 2005

For earlier works, click here.



Sundown #3

Sundown: Arizona #3
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Jason Ossman and Stefani Rennee, cover by Ryan Bodenheim

October 2005

Sundown #2

Sundown: Arizona #2
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Jason Ossman and Stefani Rennee, cover by Ryan Bodenheim

September 2005

Sundown: Arizona #1
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Ryan Bodenheim and Stefani Rennee

July 2005

Digital Webbing #23
Featuring "Fight Junkies"
Art by Reilly Brown
Published by Digital Webbing

Western Tales of Terror #1
Featuring "The Deserter"
Art by Jared Bivens

Published by Hoarse & Buggy

The Face of the River:
the debut novel
Click here for more info